February 9th, 2009
12:01 PM ET

Was Lincoln a racist?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

I first encountered Abraham Lincoln in Piedmont, W.Va. When I was growing up, his picture was in nearly every black home I can recall, the only white man, other than Jesus himself, to grace black family walls. Lincoln was a hero to us.

One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1960, when I was 10 years old, I picked up a copy of our latest Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and, thumbing through, stumbled upon Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot, which had been published in 1955 and immediately became a runaway bestseller. It is an hour-by-hour chronicle of the last day of Lincoln’s life. I couldn’t help crying by the end.


Filed under: Black in America
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Someone finally willing to speak the historical truth about Lincoln. Amen. I did find the whole Obama homage to Lincoln quite humorous considering Lincoln's beliefs. Guess that Ivy League education of the Obamas was lacking in some real history classes.

    February 9, 2009 at 6:44 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    Lincoln was very much a product of his time; he did not believe in slavery because he believed that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution extended freedom to all people and did not give the moral right to enslave any person to another person. The Emancipation Proclamation was written with political goals in mind; Lincoln was faced with a population that was not very supportive of the war; that would have just as soon let the South go its own way. Lincoln needed something morally righteous to get the people of the Union behind him and the war and he used the abolishment of slavery as that tool – he wrote it months before it was issued because he wanted a clear cut win in a battle for the North (Antietam) so it looked as if it came from a source of strength and not the gasp of a dying cause to keep the Union together. And he was right; the Proclamation gave the Union the moral superiority that it needed to carry on to win the war.

    Lincoln did say the things that Earle and Mike and others have pointed out in their comments. He was not a perfect man – he was a product of his times in which most whites did not see the black man as an equal (nor did they see native americans as equals either). At one point he wanted to colonize all the blacks to Liberia. However, Lincoln, while not seeing the races as equals, did see the issue of slavery repugnant in a country that preached equal rights. Whether he took his belief that slavery was repugnant from the Declaration or the Constitution or just the observances of life, he had the opportunity to fix what he considered a great wrong – that in the end is really all that matters.

    February 9, 2009 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Jim M

    Among many of Lincoln's beliefs, and not infrequently state by him was the "federal control of slavery in the territories...including to prohibit (it)" and not necessarily the individual states existing at the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He did recognize slavery "as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence..." [Cooper Union Address 27FEB1860]

    On 21AUG1858, less than a month before the Charleston Debate quote, Lincoln said in Ottowa, Illinois that "there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence."

    Up until late in the Civil War, Licoln's statements are clear as to his doubt that the Federal Goverment had the right to emancipate the slaves in those states which recognized slavery as a "right."

    Finally, the Charleston Debate quote should be expanded to contain the sentence which followed the quote: "...and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I SAY UPON THIS OCCASION I DO NOT PERCEIVE THAT BECAUSE THE WHITE MAN IS TO HAVE THE SUPERIOR POSITION THE NEGRO SHOULD BE DENIED EVERYTHING."

    February 9, 2009 at 6:03 pm |
  4. earle,florida

    I'd like to quote from the" Lincoln-Douglas" debates of 1858,when Lincoln declared: "I have no purpose to introduce political,and social equality between the white,and black races". There is a physical difference between the two,which in my judgement,will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality. ; "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters of negroes,nor of qualifying them to hold office,nor to intermarry with white people. I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race".; close quotes. Four years later, in an August 22,1862 letter to the New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley,Lincoln wrote: "If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all of the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone,Iwould also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the union".;close quote. Please note that when these words were panned by President Lincoln , there was already a draft in his desk drawer of the Emancipation Proclaimation! Now, does this (having to pacify both sides of the aisle) sound familiar? It has a funny ring about it,"Dammed if You Do,and Dammed if You Don't! Wonderful Read(:

    February 9, 2009 at 5:20 pm |
  5. Mike in NYC


    The word "racist" did not exist in Lincoln's day. It's of twentieth century vintage. Racial separatism was the attitude held by most people of his time.


    One can be a "racist" by being a separatist, without the desire to dominate another group. This would describe East Asians such as modern Japanese, Chinese and Koreans in their own countries.

    February 9, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  6. Larry

    In his day, hindsight is 20/20, would Lincoln have been called a racist by the media of the day?

    February 9, 2009 at 3:34 pm |
  7. Angela

    To be a racist, you must have the desire to oppress one or a group of people. Lincoln was not a racist....however he may have had racist views...that is until he met educated blacks like Frederick Douglas, who also was agreat orator and philosopher.

    February 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm |
  8. Travis

    Love him or hate him....Lincoln was a man of his time. His views of blacks were probably in line with those of his contemporaries. Does this lessen his contribution to our country? No. He kept the union together and did issue the emacipation proclamation. The slaves were freed (not necessarily considered equal) and today there is only one country between Canada and Mexico. Very few presidents have experienced the difficulties that he faced.

    One must use caution when judging someone from another time period. You simply cannot apply 21st century morals and expectations to someone who lived in the 19th century. Think of how our generation may be judged by people from the 23rd century. Will abortion still be seen as a woman's rights issue or will it be considered a hideous crime?

    History will judge us too.

    February 9, 2009 at 2:36 pm |
  9. Mike in NYC

    Gates can conjecture all he wants about an “upward arc” at the end of Lincoln’s life, but that 1858 quote is pretty cut and dried. It certainly doesn't seem like he was mouthing those ideas just to get votes. Lincoln also said that if he could have saved the Union without freeing any slaves, he would have done it.

    So we have Abe Lincoln, the racialist? Looks that way. Gotta deal with it, people. The truth is the only game in town, whether you like it or not. Mythology is overrated, anyway,

    February 9, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  10. Sue

    I would like to think that Lincoln just made those remarks because he knew the rest of the country was not ready for full equality and he want to achieve freedom first and knew that reforms would have to eventually follow, but maybe he was a product of his times and I hope that he was indeed the great man we were taught in school about in that he was able to overcome his prejudices and preconceived notions and reevaluate even if it came only near the end of his life and since it probably cost him his life, maybe we can cut him a little slack?

    February 9, 2009 at 12:28 pm |